Sex, and the fear of sex, is the prime mover in David Lynch’s movies. It squirms within the crawl spaces of narrative, frequently uprooting the melodrama with a riot of wanting, thumping, howling fucking. Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Mulholland Drive, all overflow with images of lurid, nasty, sweaty, animalistic sex. Lynch frequently—sometimes within the same movie—feeds the overheated Puritan beast as well. The plunge into the sleaze is typically rooted in the moralism of conservative Neverlandism. This old-fashioned American boy wants his pussy (depictions of sex and lust are always thoroughly hetero-driven) as much as he wants his cherry pie and cup of joe. It’s just that the sweet howl of fucking is accompanied with the wag of moralism. For whatever reason, Lynch can’t turn off to turn on.
Lost Highway isn’t entirely free of the moral gaze—e.g. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) are each sexually obsessed with Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) and Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette), though the intensity of her sexuality simultaneously destroys each man as well. They fear her. Attraction/repulsion eroticism has claimed many a drifter, conman, rube in film noir. The genre is piled high with the limp bodies of broken men who stupidly believed they could covet the unattainable, then tried to murder what they couldn’t capture. Written by Lynch and writer Barry Gifford (they also worked on Wild at Heart together, another sex and violence-soaked trip through the pulp hinterlands), Lost Highway amplifies sexual obsession to an aggressive, intoxicating level. The movie’s dark descent into noir-soaked depravity is aggressively carnal, relishing with fetishistic detail the unraveling of men to their overheated ids. Contemporary American commercial cinema has long had a problem with depictions of adult sex on screen. Puerile teenage sex comedies, like Porky’s and American Pie, are okay, but any filmmaker over the last decade who wants to have two adults fucking on screen in a non-comedic context is going to run into problems from the studio, the ratings board, and/or the public. It’s probably best for a director to just have a man bash in a woman’s head or slash her wide open, spilling her guts across the screen, than risk box office receipts because a little wholesome fucking was shown instead.
Sex in Lost Highway is defiantly lurid and influenced by images of pornography. There’s nothing really new here in this Lynch/Gifford neon-lit wasteland of corruption that hasn’t flowed through countless film noir tales before. But it is more graphic and overt about what was really generating beneath the banal plot details. Like Vertigo, Bad Timing, and David Cronenberg’s Crash, Lost Highway isn’t shy about what’s really motivating its characters. It revels in the graphicness of lust and violence, the engine that motors the best pulp fiction.
The setting of Lost Highway is Los Angeles, the city of sun, sparkle, and manufactured dreams. It’s also an industry town of nightmares and desolation. The two movie industries that run it are mainstream commercial features and pornography. The city is a dead sprawl where unfulfilled desires nestle alongside insatiable ambitions; where the evidence of heartbreak and hopelessness stains the bedroom walls of scuzzy motels and palatial mansions alike. For every wish granted, there are a thousand promises broken. Los Angeles is the land where melodrama and tragedy intermingle; where comedy and horror cling to each other so savagely it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.
Lynch and Gifford know this world well, and in Lost Highway they chart this attractive/repulsive nightscape with the precision of longtime residents… or, at least, veteran moviegoers and readers. The City of Angels is a place heightened to a delirious pitch while simultaneously grounded in the meat and bone and blood and impulses that are all too human. In Lynchville, metaphor and concrete physical reality have always been entwined. It’s no coincidence that Lost Highway begins and ends with the image of a car racing down a ribbon of asphalt… a Möbius strip that will become more explicitly metaphorical and concrete as the narrative unwinds. As with most all of Lynch’s work, however, the real strength of his storytelling has nothing to do with the mechanics of plot or character. It’s how he tells the story, how he constructs a mood, how he generates images and sensations that we’ve never seen before.
Though many viewers love to pick apart what things mean in Lynch’s work, trying to decipher the symbols and dream imagery as if it’s a code that can be solved, implying that there’s one way to read each movie, I’ve never found his work to be cerebral at all, at least not in a way that Godard is cerebral or Resnais, Rohmer, and Haneke are. Lynch is intentionally cryptic, but the work to me has always provoked thoroughly emotional responses. Anything beyond that is an afterthought.
Lost Highway gets under my skin. In the screenplay to it and in its press materials, Lynch and Gifford refer to the movie as a “21st-century noir horror film.” It is and it isn’t… certainly not traditional genre fare. Horror isn’t a real genre anyway, as critic and author Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his introduction to the anthology Prime Evil, and I whole-heartedly agree with him. Horror is an emotion, a feeling that transcends the parameters of genre. It’s not like the Western or science fiction or the mystery. Lost Highway does effectively mix horror with mystery with the absurd, something that Lynch has always done, but here he goes farther off the edge into the great weird unknown. The movie is suffocating at times. Fear and paranoia fester in every frame and Lynch rarely dilutes it with humor. There is comedy in it—the scene of mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) lecturing the tailgater while beating his brains out is hilarious wish-fulfillment—but the darkness of the movie overwhelms all… as it should.
I love much of Lynch’s work, though this is the one that hypnotizes me the most. I’m lost within its spell from the first moment. I’ve written about my longtime crush on Patricia Arquette before. She’s never been better or more appealing than here, though like her role in True Romance, she’s an idealized male fantasy. But unlike True Romance, Lynch and Gifford are aware of how fragile and destructive that allure is… how it binds and obliterates the male characters too weak to resist her. Her sexual appeal masks a great nothingness. Underneath the façade, Renee/Alice is a crude, uninteresting woman. Nothing shakes off the spell more than seeing Alice stand next to Pete, who has just murdered her sleazy old lover Andy (Michael Massee), and mutters “wow” with the detached air of a Southern California-baked Valley Girl… or a sociopath.
Nevertheless, Renee/Alice is a hard one to resist… the ultimate femme fatale. The movie stands alongside Vertigo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, and Bad Timing as the ultimate fetishistic take on sexual obsession. Below is my uncensored video tribute to the movie. PLAY IT LOUD!